It is not so much a few Tamil Nadu fishermen poaching in the Palk Straits that Lanka will have to worry about but rather the resurrection this week of an Indian plan to dredge a canal through the narrow stretch of sea that separates India and Lanka which will enable future ships to give Lankan [...]


New avatar looms over Rama’s Bridge

Indian 'Suez' canal through Palk Strait may scuttle Lanka's shipping hopes

It is not so much a few Tamil Nadu fishermen poaching in the Palk Straits that Lanka will have to worry about but rather the resurrection this week of an Indian plan to dredge a canal through the narrow stretch of sea that separates India and Lanka which will enable future ships to give Lankan ports a welcome miss.

On the cards is not the issue of a few Tamil Nadu boats in Lankan custody or a few Tamil Nadu fishermen in Lankan cells but an issue of more serious import which is set to strike at the very heart of Lanka’s bubbling shipping industry and may well scuttle her grandiose vision to become the hub, the miracle, the epi centre of an emerging Asia.

India’s Pamban Bridge

What had so far prevented the dredging of a ‘Suez’ canal in the Palk has been the existence of Rama’s Bridge, an 18-mile-long chain of limestone shoals that link the tip of India, Rameshwaram to Mannar.

This was the mythological bridge built thousands of years ago by Hanuman and his Monkey Brigade to make possible Rama’s invasion of Ravana’s Lanka. The extreme shallowness of the sea around this bridge, known as Sethusamudram, being only 3 to 30 feet in depth, have limited navigation to boats and dinghies, thus forcing larger ships to take the circuitous route around the coast of Lanka to reach the other side of India. Records show that until 1480 AD when a storm deepened the channel, the bridge was visible above sea level and was passable on foot.

If for Ravana’s Lanka, the bridge brought disaster, it proved a blessed boon in disguise for Lanka in later years. Lanka’s strategic importance as an entrepot and the hub of Asia, and its envious position in the Silk Route were possible due to the then insurmountable barricade that lay divinely placed across the Palk Strait seabed.

During British rule marine surveys of Rama’s Bridge were conducted and in 1837 operations to dredge the channel were recommended but nothing came of it. Both before and after independence 14 committees sat on the matter. In 2001, the Indian Government approved a plan to dredge the ocean floor to create a channel across the Palk Strait but this alignment required cutting through Rama’s Bridge. But this immediately ran into a storm of protests from political parties including the present ruling party, the BJP, and from various Hindu groups. Their objections were based on religious grounds, holding that no damage must be caused to Rama’s Bridge. Environmentalists also joined the protests, claiming that the dredging would have an adverse ecological impact and would damage marine wealth. The then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, announced the inauguration of the project in 2005. But then the protests began.

Despite NASA satellite evidence which showed that the bridge was a natural geological formation and was not manmade, the Hindus held fast to their faith in the Ramayana myth. It even brought together three strange bedfellows namely: Jayalalithaa petitioning the Supreme Court in 2007 stating “the bridge’s unique curvature and composition by age reveals that it is manmade and that archaeological studies revealed that first signs of human inhabitants in Sri Lanka date back to the primitive age of about 1,750,000 years and the bridge’s age is also almost equivalent; Subramanian Swamy applying to the court to restrain the authorities from causing any damage to the Rama Bridge; and the Lankan Government promoting it as a tourist site to religious tourism from Hindu pilgrims in India by including the phenomenon as one of the points on its “Ramayana Trail”, In 2010, the Indian Supreme Court decided to delay the project until an environmental impact analysis had been done.

For the past 177 years, the plan to dredge the Palk Strait and free Indian waters to international shipping has occupied the Indian mind. Rama’s Bridge has been the stumbling block and Lanka’s saving grace. If not for the bridge, Colombo would have been an insignificant port of call. Not a vibrant shipping hub where ships perforce must drop anchor for fuelling and transshipment of goods. But are we witnessing the end of the good times? Has the luxury cruise which had so far sailed on monopolistic waters, come to the last nautical lap, set to dock in the dry yard?

On Wednesday the Indian government was on course to give its approval to a new plan to circumvent the protest raised on religious and other grounds. Instead of dredging a canal across Rama’s Bridge which lies between Rameshwaram and Mannar, the new plan is to dredge a canal across the sea that divides Rameshwaram and the Indian mainland, namely the Pamban Bridge, connecting mainland India to Rameshwaram, in which a channel, presently navigable for small vessels, already exists. This would completely bypass the need to have an alignment through Rama’s Bridge and yet achieve the same goal: A passage through India that unites the West with the East.

The Indian Shipping Ministry has appointed the Rail India’s Technical and Economic Service (RITES) to conduct the study to dredge the canal to enable 8000 tonne vessels to navigate the channel but RITES has suggested that the channel can be deepened further to allow larger ships to pass through. In that event, the last rites to mark the end of Lanka’s shipping flourish would have already been performed and done with.
The massive expansion to the Colombo Port and the need for another port in Hambantota were done with the sword of Rama’s Bridge dangling over, without pause to consider whether in the event of India finally going ahead with the canal project it would, at its worst, be made redundant or, at its best, would lose its sheen as the harbours of hope which had enjoyed a monopolistic position in the Indian Ocean.

Three Articles in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea deal with ‘enclosed seas’ and apply to the Palk Strait. Article 206 states, “when countries have reasonable grounds for believing that planning activities under their jurisdiction or control, may cause substantial pollution of, or significant harmful changes to, the marine environment, they shall, as far as practical, assess the potential effects of such activities on the marine environment and shall communicate reports of the results of such assessments.”

But India has not adhered to this ‘precautionary principle’. In the contrary she has continuously dismissed any need to consult Sri Lanka even when it came to cutting across Rama’s Bridge which connects India to Sri Lanka. With arrogance she has brusquely dismissed the Lankan Government’s repeated requests for more information coupled with high level talks. In 2006 India summarily rejected Lanka’s request for a ‘joint impact assessment’. It was only because of protests from her own citizens against any damage to Rama’s Bridge followed by a Supreme Court stay order restraining further work on the project that have prevented the canal being dredged upto now.

But today India has found a way out of this impasse which does not involve Rama’s Bridge at all but achieves the same purpose nevertheless. She has effectively removed protests mounted on religious grounds for Rama’s Bridge will be left preserved. Sri Lanka will be further left out from the frame for dredging will be done not between the sea shared with Lanka but in the sea between its own mainland and its own Pamban Island and the enclosed sea area will be deemed an internal matter for India. That will reduce any protests to a few on the fringe environmentalists who will be given short shrift. India will have her way, Rama’s Bridge which was an impediment will be of no consequence and finally ships from India’s western port of Mumbai will be able to sail through her own territorial waters to reach her eastern port in Chennai without having to traverse the Lankan coast. The same will hold for international shipping.

Called the Gateway to South India, the Chennai Port is India’s second largest port and has been the cornerstone of Tamil Nadu’s remarkable economic growth. In recent years it has been handling over 60 million tonnes of cargo compared to Colombo Port’s 31 million. Plans are underway to increase the capacity to over 140 million tonnes annually. India is expanding the port at a cost of nearly US$ one billion to meet the demand envisaged from the opening up of the Palk Strait route to large ships and tankers. It is the future India has planned for Chennai port. And with new skipper Modi at the wheel, no doubt, she intends to sail full steam ahead.

With such grey clouds of gloom bearing upon her, Lanka must brace herself to brave the rough seas, long predicted storms generally bring. If we had remained submerged and not heard or felt the changing winds swirling above, it is time to surface, to break water. Recently Deputy Finance Minister Sarath Amunugama declared that seventy five per cent of the world shipping pass Hambantota and therefore the Hambantota Port, being ideally located, has the potential to become one of the busiest ports in the world.

That may certainly have been true if not for the Palk Strait’s Sethusamudram Canal Project which may see realisation in the coming years. Even at this late hour, Lanka must plan how best to meet the canal threat that had always been visible on the horizon, excepting to those who did not wish to see it, perhaps because dredging, takes place under the sea. It must consider whether the inevitable devaluation of importance as a result of the new canal would call for a more rationalistic outlook and a prudent cutback on the expansion projects ambitiously planned for her ports.
She must consider whether reality justifies further promoting Hambantota as a mega city with mega projects all centered and depended round a thriving mega Hambantota port as dreamt of; or whether, in the coming years, far from being a major investment for future generations to inherit and enjoy as now proclaimed, it will be reduced to a shamble for future generations to deplore and pay for as predicted?

Or, one day soon, sitting on the dock of the bay, wondering where have all the ships gone, are we to take cold comfort of knowing that we can at least lease it to China as a naval base and attempt to reduce our losses by becoming another pearl dangling on her Indian Ocean string?

Save sacred Sanchi Bodhi from dying


The Bo sapling from the 2300 year old sacred Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi planted in Sanchi by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in September two years ago is dying and withering, it was revealed on Monday.

The tree, now over ten feet in height, was not being looked after well by the Indian authorities, the Buddha Sasana Ministry alleged while stating however that it was still trying to determine whether it was the tree planted by the President or whether it was some other tree.

“The Sanchi Temple is under the purview of Ven. Banagala Upatissa Thera. Therefore, we can contact him over the issue and to determine what exactly the issue is,” Ministry Secretary M.K.B. Dissanayake told the media on Tuesday, stating further that he intends to write to the Indian High Commission in Colombo. “There is not much we could do but we will write to the High Commission on the issue,” he said.

Is this the kind of ‘couldn’t care less’ approach we expect from the Secretary of the Buddhist Sasana Affair of this predominantly Buddhist country whose people proudly claim to be the historical guardians of Buddhism in its pristine form, when the fate of the Bo tree, the direct descendent and grandson of the sacred grand sire that gave shelter to the Buddha, hang in the balance?

Especially after making an allegation that the tree planted by the President of Lanka not even two years ago, is not being looked after by India? On the one hand he is uncertain as to what the issue is and also as to whether the dying tree is the one planted by the President? On the other hand he is certain that the one planted by the president is being neglected. But the one thing he is convinced of is that there is not much to do but to drop a memo to the Indian High Commissioner here. Saying what? That the bo tree is reported to be under the weather, to get some Indian tree quack to make a house call and check the chlorophyll level?

Meanwhile, Mahabodhi Society Chairman and Sanchi Chetiya Temple chief incumbent Banagala Upatissa Thera sends an ‘all’s well’ report stating that Indian authorities have already taken remedial measures to protect the Bo sapling.

Good. But given the scare, is it enough? Can we go by the supposed prognosis by some unknown Indian as allegedly told to of a Buddhist monk without any botanical knowledge as confirming evidence that the tree is in the pink of health?

If all the concern expressed is genuine and the need for a concerted effort to protect its growth and welfare is recognised, then the Buddha Sasana Ministry should seek the services of Lanka’s chief botanist, Dr Wijesundara, the director of Royal National Botanical Gardens, Peradeniya. He is the one most qualified to oversee the tree’s health. Furthermore he accompanied the president to India in 2012 and was present at the planting ceremony in Sanchi and thus would be vested with personal knowledge of the tree. The External Affairs Ministry should be requested to arrange the necessary facilities for Dr Wijesundara to visit, inspect and set in place a continuous monitoring system with Indian counterparts and be held responsible for the tree.

Or the fate of the tree will end up as the fate of certain buildings where the foundation stone is laid with all pomp and ceremony by politicians and soon forgotten and left to ruin and decay; where only the polished granite stone marking the event remains as witness.

Perhaps it is the fate of nations as it is the fate of people who, gifted with an abundance of wealth soon squander it away with an unappreciative air of apathetic indifference towards the treasures they possess. Blessed as India was with three major religions, Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, born and bred on its fertile spiritual soil, it became the natural order of things to neglect what they inherited, to scorn what they should have cherished, to reject what they should have followed and to see Buddhism and Jainism fall into neglect and fade into the moonless night of oblivion.
Thus how can we expect India to look after the Bo sapling from Lanka, when she failed to foster Buddhism and allowed the original Bodhi Tree to be brought down by the ace of religious rivalry? But yet how can we bemoan the fate that befell Buddhism in the land of its birth, if we ourselves neglect to care for the well being of a sapling born in Buddhism’s chosen land.

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